Current Book Project

Fear and Loathing and Freedom: Religious Fear and the Paradoxical Origins of American Pluralism

Baptists in Rehoboth, Massachusetts petitioned their colony’s government for exemption from a mandated tithe in 1706. The tithe was an annual tax that went directly to support Congregational ministers in the Puritan Commonwealth. The Baptists argued that the original charter for the colony guaranteed “liberty of conscious as to matters of religious concerns.” In their opinion, forcing everyone in the colony to support Congregational ministers violated Baptist colonists’ religious freedoms. The petitioners closed by noting that their protest was “entirely democratical and anti-papist.”

Religion and politics were thoroughly entangled in early America. The consensus among early American historians is that anti-Catholicism served as an important source of pan-Protestant British nationalism after the Glorious Revolution. Different Protestant denominations from around the British empire drew unity from their shared fear and loathing of Catholics. My dissertation presents surprising evidence that anti-Catholic rhetoric was not always about Catholicism itself. I argue that nascent democratic sensibilities were rooted in Reformed theological anxieties about the preservation of liberty of conscience. Liberty of conscience was a contested notion that promoted heartfelt, personal piety as the right way to worship God and that stressed the fact that a certain degree of autonomy was necessary to express this authentic devotion. Religious fears about threats to that autonomy pre-dated the Glorious Revolution. What is more, these fears divided protestant Anglo-Americans as much as they brought them together.
Reformed theological fears that individual heartfelt piety was constantly at risk from various real and imagined threats drove different Protestant denominations to demand “democratical and anti-papist” reforms. Baptists in Massachusetts wanted compulsory tithing laws repealed. Moravians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians in Pennsylvania wanted more of a voice in the Quaker dominated legislature. In each case, religious fears informed the articulation of nascent democratic sensibilities.

My project is divided into six chronological chapters. The first chapter roots the origins of Protestant anxieties about threats to liberty of conscience in the English Reformation. English Protestants viewed the Reformation as deliverance from the intolerance and tyranny of the Catholic church. Various dissenting Protestant groups within England emerged from the Reformation with unresolved theologically-driven fears regarding the abuse of power and corruption. Many of these fears were articulated in anti-Catholic language and followed these Protestant groups into their North American exile. Contested notions of the personal and collective autonomy necessary to secure liberty of conscience persisted in the British North American colonies well into the eighteenth century.

The most powerful religious establishments in English North America were the Congregationalist led government in Massachusetts and the Quaker dominated legislature in Pennsylvania. Chapter two explains how these two colonial governments invoked Reformed theological ideas about liberty of conscience in their response to the Glorious Revolution. Scholars such as Owen Stanwood and Carla Pestana have stressed the ways in which the Glorious Revolution was a key turning point that drew together England’s various dissenting sects into new patriotic British identity around their shared Protestantism. Yet, much remained the same during and after the Glorious Revolution. Massachusetts’s Congregationalists fell back on traditional anti-Catholic verbiage to oppose the reforms made under James II’s Dominion of New England before the Revolution. Quakers also labeled the Dominion’s forceful advocacy of the Anglican church and the repression of their prerogative within Pennsylvania as “popery.” British Protestant dissenters habitually fell back into infighting and mutual recrimination. Much of these internecine struggles revolved around the best means of preserving liberty of conscience.

Christians were not the only threats to liberty of conscience. Chapter three examines the role of reformed fears regarding liberty of conscience in the portrayal of Muslims within English literature, popular culture, and art. Throughout the early eighteenth century, a variety of British American Protestants used the lens of anti-Catholicism to articulate perceived tyranny within the political, religious, and cultural traditions of Islam. This allowed Protestants to contrast real and imagined examples of abusive power in Muslim societies with their own sense of a democratic and religiously tolerant tradition. It also tied feared threats to freedom of conscience with an ever-widening array of behaviors. In applying anti-Catholic fears and prejudices to Muslims, everything from legal policy to cultural tradition to the behavior of individuals was put forth as satisfactory evidence. The one shared element was the abhorrence of behaviors considered tyrannical or corrupt. The rejection of authoritarian or corrupt practices within Islam, then, served as a vehicle through which to express the same fears of abusive or corrupt power that had dominated dissenting Protestants’ worldview since the Reformation.

Religious fears brought American Protestants together to face external threats. Anxieties over liberty of conscience also tore American Protestants apart. Chapters four and five offer case studies that illustrate the key role ideas about liberty of conscience played in schisms among American Protestants. Chapter four examines the Baptist struggle for religious exemption in the towns of Reheboth and Swansea, Massachusetts between 1700-1727. The Baptists of Swansea successfully fought for, and later defended, their exemption from compulsory religious taxation by the Congregational establishment. Rehoboth’s Baptists ultimately failed. Yet, their disconsonant experience reveals common strands. These communities articulated their resistance to mandatory tithes as a matter of consenting, contractual agreement between government and the governed as much as Reformation-based demands for the theological tolerance of dissenters. Their understanding of freedom of conscience saw political and religious autonomy as irrevocably bound together, and Baptists’ dissent freely invoked political notions of local rule and volunteerism in defense of their religious rights. Baptists viewed encroachments on those principles as “papist.”

Chapter five examines the struggle of non-Quaker immigrants and sectarians against the political and economic control of the ruling Quaker party in Pennsylvania. Royal governor Sir William Keith waged a two-decade struggle to curb the economic and political clout of the Society of Friends, who dominated Pennsylvania’s towns at the expense of the largely dissenting countryside. By the eve of the Great Awakening, dissenting Protestants within the colony, both immigrant and native-born, frequently denounced their political and religious marginalization under Quaker rule. Within a decades-long contest for power in Pennsylvania, more and more challengers came to voice accusations of political exclusion and economic corruption by the Quakers as demonstrations of “papist” behavior. Yet, time and again, Quakers mounted a successful defense of their political position by enthusiastically reminding Pennsylvanians of the Friends’ famed “Protestant tolerance,” which American dissenters’ anti-Catholic traditions had long equated with sound, legitimate governance. By 1750, this divisive but potent tactic was an increasingly valuable medium for the contesting of religious and political power in Protestant America.

Chapter six describes the confluence of religious and political ideas about liberty during the “episcopacy controversies” of the 1760s. A major goal of attempts at the imperial reorganization of British North America during this time was the assertion of Anglican primacy within the empire through the establishment of dioceses, or episcopacies, in British America. Traditionally fearful of Anglican dominance, Congregationalists, Quakers, and a variety of other dissenting sects found unity in opposition to Anglican efforts. To the bafflement of London, North American dissenters wailed against this “popish” encroachment on their group’s interests, launching an unparalleled print campaign against the Anglican establishment. Some said it would subject them to the repression their fellow believers suffered back in England. Others suggested it would be only the first step of many toward the complete removal of their freedom of conscience. As opposition leader Jonathan Mayhew argued in 1763, American Protestants knew through personal experience that “tyranny of religion is but the first step toward a more direct civil oppression.” A long list of events from the Protestant Reformation to the struggle over episcopacy had taught American Protestants that “popery and tyranny” were synonymous.

My project sheds new light on the role religion played in the formation of democratic sensibilities in America. Nathan Hatch and others situate the connection between Protestantism and democracy in the Early Republic, and they maintain this link was the result of the American Revolution. My research proves this link existed long before the Revolution. My dissertation also suggests a foundational paradox in American life: religious xenophobia and popular anxieties about the loss of freedom of conscience proved to be effective tools in inculcating democratic sensibilities in America.